Drinking water: accelerating public policies to respect Human Rights and global goals.

©Solidarités Intenational, Tchad.

DHEAs should not be left to human rights lawyers.

In the international community, the « water world » and the « human rights world » are two families that largely ignore each other, « silos ». The excellent resolution adopted last December by the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on the Human Rights to Drinking Water and Sanitation (HRTW) is proof of this. It was obviously prepared by human rights specialists but without any real dialogue with the water world, which makes it very irrelevant. It should not be started again, as it may even become counterproductive for the rights holders.

The fundamental reason for this need to bring the two worlds closer together is that WHRDs are different from political and religious rights. They are not rights to do but rights to benefit from something. The individual right is inseparable from a quid pro quo, which is the obligation of the public authorities to progressively ensure the satisfaction of the Right for the whole population. This counterpart is not directly in the domain of Human Rights specialists, it is in the domain of the world of water management, i.e. public authorities and water professionals. Indeed, in most cases, the satisfaction of individual rights requires collective action and organisation. If you live in a city, you cannot dig a well yourself to find water. The current issue is the « implementation of the right », which is therefore mainly a public policy issue.

There are other reasons to bring the two worlds into dialogue:

  • international law defines the right to water quite precisely but not enough to characterize all concrete situations. At the national level, more precise complementary rules are indispensable for the implementation of most of the dimensions (criteria and principles) of the HRTW. This is what the French regulations do.
  • Finally, I recall that the DHEAs are not the property of human rights lawyers. Without the intervention of certain actors in the water world in 2010, I am thinking in particular of companies, some countries would probably have blocked their adoption.

At the French Water Partnership (FWP), many members contribute to the progress of the HRDs in the countries most in need. For example:

  • The AFD, which precisely measures the impacts of the projects it finances.
  • Companies that contribute to providing DHEAs to more than twice the French population outside France.
  • Local authorities through their decentralized cooperation actions.
  • Development NGOs specializing in water and sanitation.

They all contribute and that is why DHEAs have historically been one of the topics that bring FEP members together.

My plea is clear: I ask the States to involve the « water world », and therefore in particular the Ministries in charge of water services, in all their discussions on the DHEAs.

Catarina de Albuquerque understood all this when she worked with water professionals on the publication by the IWA of a handbook for practitioners1.

SDOs are a formidable global tool for the implementation of the EBAs.

In 2010, water professionals were quite helpless with regard to the implementation of human rights. The demands of these rights were formulated in a rather new way for water actors and they did not have all the necessary tools, whether in terms of public policies, working methods or measurement of needs.

In 2015, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDOs), a major global programme as important as the Paris Agreement but still little known in France and in the French media, filled this gap with various mutually reinforcing provisions.

  • Firstly, as a global policy, the UN resolution adopting the SDGs explicitly mentions the SDGs, which it does not do for any other human right.
  • Secondly, this resolution creates the ambition to achieve universal access to affordable drinking water and universal access to sanitation by 2030. These targets 6.1 and 6.2 are complemented by target 6.b to improve public participation in decision-making. This is the language of the WAD criteria and principles. The use of these qualifiers is a clear expression of the will to move towards the satisfaction of the DHEAs.
  • Moreover, as statistical tools were lacking, work was carried out to build a statistical methodology that would make it possible to measure as much as possible the evolution of the different criteria and principles. This has resulted in a much finer global statistical system.

For example, for access to water, parameters of accessibility, availability and potability of water are now measured that will not exist until 2015. A totally new indicator, « access to services managed in complete safety », aggregates all these dimensions. This is the indicator used to measure progress towards universal access to water. Public participation is the subject of another indicator.

For sanitation, methodological progress is of a similar nature.

Thus, progress towards the MDG targets measured by the new MDG indicators is clearly progress towards the universal satisfaction of human rights. The SDOs are a formidable political agenda for the implementation of the AHRDs and effectively measure progress.

However, meeting the MDG indicators will not be sufficient to achieve universal implementation of the human rights treaties. Indeed, some parameters, such as potability, are only monitored at a level below the requirements of the Law. Moreover, a satisfactory methodology for measuring the number of people for whom water is affordable or not has not yet been found.

Nevertheless, the ODD programme mobilises all governments and thus indirectly all water stakeholders. France was not mistaken. Universal access to drinking water and sanitation is one of the 17 quantified ambitions of its ODD Road Map. This desire to ensure access for all is a totally new formulation in our official texts.

How great is the need? Are we going to achieve the 2030 Goals?

In 2012, I explained in a book2 that the number of people using probably contaminated water should approach 2 billion and that the number of those whose human right to safe drinking water is not met should exceed 3 billion. With our new statistical arsenal, we have a much better appreciation of needs, criterion by criterion. My first estimate has been confirmed. The most recent statistic estimates the number of people using probably contaminated water at the end of 2017 at 2.2 billion and the number of people without access to safe drinking water as defined by the aggregate indicator ODD (access to safe drinking water) at 2.3 billion.

As this indicator does not include all dimensions of the Human Right to Drinking Water, I still believe that more than 3 billion people, or more than 4 out of 10 human beings, are waiting for their rights to be fulfilled by public authorities.

©Solidarités International, Myanmar.

In terms of sanitation, it is now known that 670 million people still practise open defecation, that 1.4 billion people do not have hygienic toilets that respect their dignity (which was the indicator for the Millennium Goals) and that 4.1 billion people do not have access to « safe managed sanitation », i.e. sanitation that does not contaminate others or the environment. The latter number is enormous. The difference between 1.4 and 4.1 does not really reflect a lack of access, but more importantly, the notorious inadequacy of wastewater treatment worldwide.

Will we succeed? I hope so, but this would require a major leap in public policy. We are a long way from that. Governments have not yet taken the measure of the new UN statistics. On the contrary, last October, at the World Summit on SDOs, they adopted a resolution in which they welcomed the progress made in access to water around the world while calling for the acceleration of public policies in other areas. Their short-sightedness is staggering.

Indeed, when we dig into the statistics, we discover that

– Global progress is far too slow: the number of people without access to safe drinking water as defined by the ODD indicator, which today stands at 2.2 billion, has fallen by only 7% in 17 years. At this rate, they will still be more than 2 billion in 2030.

– Worse, in sub-Saharan Africa, there is no progress but a rapid deterioration. In 17 years, the number of people using probably contaminated water jumped by 45% from 2000 to 2017. They now constitute 2/3 of the population.

For sanitation, the trends are contrasted. What used to be known until 2015 as basic or ‘improved’ sanitation, i.e. access to hygienic toilets that respect people’s dignity, has greatly improved since the year 2000. Continued efforts at a slightly faster pace would seem to bring universal access close to 2030. But for access to sanitation that respects the health of neighbours and the environment, progress is far too slow: the ODD indicator of the number of people without access to « safely managed » services has risen by only 6% in 17 years.

All these statistics are available on the public database of WHO and UNICEF.

However, the UN agencies do not show or comment on them3. No one looks at them. On the contrary, governments look elsewhere. They boast of their so-called progress on access to water, while leaving the debate on human rights defenders in the hands of human rights lawyers.

The ‘Water World’ needs to wake up. Billions of rights holders are waiting. For drinking water and wastewater treatment, there is an urgent need to organize a political surge, a very strong acceleration of public policies. The « decade of action » must not forget them.

Gérard Payen.

1 « Manual on the Human Rights to Drinking Water and Sanitation for Practitioners », Bos and al, IWA, 2016.

2 « The world’s drinking water needs are underestimated: billions of people are concerned », G. Payen in « The right to drinking water and sanitation in Europe », edited by H. Smets, Editions Johanet, Paris, 2012.

3 More precisely, the 2019 report of the WHO/UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme only published the values surrounded by a circle on the graph above without indicating either the needs for ODD indicators or their evolution and presenting only politically positive 2000-2017 developments. The corresponding press release also published the value printed in italics.

Gérard Payen, a global water player

Gérard Payen has been working for more than 35 years to solve water-related problems in all countries. As Water Advisor to the Secretary General of the United Nations (member of UNSGAB) from 2004 to 2015, he contributed to the recognition of the Human Rights to drinking water and sanitation as well as to the adoption of the many global sustainable development goals related to water. Today, he is a director of 3 major French associations dedicated to water and continues to work to mobilize the international community for a better management of water issues, which requires more ambitious public policies. At the same time, since 2009, he has been advising the United Nations agencies that produce world water statistics. Impressed by the number of misconceptions about the nature of water problems that hinder public authorities in their decision-making, he published a book in 2013 to dismantle these misconceptions.